How a costly proxy war can be prevented in Afghanistan

How a costly proxy war can be prevented in Afghanistan
Since 2001, more than 775,000 US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan in a war that has cost over $1 trillion and seen the loss of tens of thousands of Afghan lives. (AFP)
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Updated 10 August 2021

How a costly proxy war can be prevented in Afghanistan

How a costly proxy war can be prevented in Afghanistan
  • US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with little understanding of a land long described as the “graveyard of empires”
  • Having failed to build a competent Afghan army to take its place, America’s exit from the country is proving just as chaotic as its arrival

ISLAMABAD: In many ways, the Doha agreement of February 2020 evoked memories of the US military’s humiliation in Vietnam half a century earlier.

The deal with the Taliban, which paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, was no less ignominious for Washington. It was not a document of surrender but neither was it a declaration of victory for the most powerful military power on earth.

US officials had negotiated peace with the very insurgent leaders they once branded terrorists. In fact, several members of the Taliban negotiating team were former inmates of the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

Such is the irony of history: Yet another superpower began its drawdown just as the war-ravaged country observed the 32nd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal. The Russians departed in 1989 after a decade in the Afghan mire. The Americans remained twice as long. The last US soldier is expected to leave in the next few weeks, before the symbolic date of Sept. 11.

Several of the Taliban negotiators in Doha had also fought the Soviets — with US support. At the time they were hailed by Washington as “holy warriors” who drove the Red Army out of Afghanistan with weapons supplied by the Americans.

Indeed, the irony was again apparent when Taliban fighters turned many of those same weapons on their former patrons.

US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, with little understanding of a land that has long been described as the “graveyard of empires.” It was an unwinnable conflict from the start but Washington fought tooth and nail to shape a narrative that would justify its continuance.

Quite how unprepared the Americans were was aptly summed up in 2015 by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who said: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

Put in these terms, it is perhaps unsurprising that Afghanistan would become America’s longest war.

The Taliban’s resurgence was helped by a strategic miscalculation on the part of Washington, which decided to reempower Afghanistan’s former strongmen and warlords, causing old ethnic and tribal tensions to resurface. One of the biggest US mistakes was a failure to avoid the perception that the West was a party to the Afghan civil war.

Despite the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, the US could not defeat the insurgents once and for all. However, the Taliban’s revival as a powerful insurgent force should not have come as a surprise. In fact, the group was never really defeated.

Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed during the war, which cost close to $1 trillion. Since 2001, more than 775,000 US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan. The distorted statistics made it appear as though the US was winning the fight — but this was far from the truth.




US forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. (AFP)

There were also fundamental disagreements within successive US administrations over precisely what America’s objectives were in Afghanistan. While some officials believed they were building a model democracy, others saw their role as reinventors of Afghan culture, including its views on women’s rights.

America’s attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade did not work. Most of the US aid money was siphoned off by Afghan officials and warlords aligned with Washington, and the country devolved into a narco-state as a result of some seriously flawed policies.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on building and training the Afghan National Army and other branches of the security apparatus, local forces proved incapable of taking on the Taliban without American support.

Following the Doha agreement, it was left to the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate the future political setup of the country. It is certainly a tall order to expect the two warring sides to reach an arrangement that will satisfy all Afghan factions — a polarization that has only intensified over the past two decades of war and foreign occupation.




It was an unwinnable conflict from the start but Washington fought tooth and nail to shape a narrative that would justify its continuance. (AFP)

In addition the departure of the US forces has proven to be just as chaotic as their arrival. The hasty withdrawal has left a cavernous power vacuum.

The Taliban has leveraged the peace deal with the US to its advantage, while growing international recognition is giving the insurgents even greater confidence.

For many Afghans, however, the prospect of a return to Taliban rule is deeply disconcerting. Notwithstanding its solemn pledges, the Taliban has maintained a deliberate ambiguity about its political agenda, which is adding to the sense of confusion.

There were some indications that the ultraconservative Taliban might be willing to work within a pluralistic political system. Yet there was no clarity on whether the group would be willing to work within a democratic political and constitutional setup.

While the Taliban political leadership appears to be more moderate and flexible in its views, there is no evidence that the commanders in the field will be so amenable to change.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, it completely outlawed the right of women to education and work. The current leadership has offered assurances that it acknowledges the rights of women and will not oppose their education, but this has done little to quell the unease many people feel about potential Taliban action once foreign forces withdraw.

Decades of conflict have exacted a heavy toll on the lives of millions of Afghans and unleashed destruction that cannot be undone. The war has left the country as divided as ever. Through battlefield victories and expanding territorial control, the Taliban has gained the upper hand, creating a dangerous asymmetry of power. Many now fear the expansion of Taliban influence will lead to a resurgence of its tyrannical rule.

Regardless of who the adversary was at any given point in time, two generations of Afghans have known only war and it seems highly unlikely their misery will end any time soon.




Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Once the winter residence of sultans from illustrious Islamic dynasties, the ruins of a thousand-year-old royal city in southern Afghanistan has become home to hundreds of people who have fled Taliban clashes. (AFP)

Inevitably, the withdrawal of American forces from the country will have a huge effect on regional geopolitics. Historically, the country’s strategic geography has made it vulnerable to interference from outside powers and proxy wars.

A full-scale civil war could lead Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran to back different factions and themselves become more deeply involved in the conflict. The spillover effects of spiraling instability and conflict in Afghanistan could prove disastrous.

Without a sustainable agreement among surrounding powers that guarantees Afghanistan’s security and its neutrality, the country might become the center of a costly proxy war, with various powers supporting rival factions across ethnic and sectarian lines.

Such an agreement is also critical to prevent Afghanistan reverting to a hub for global terrorism. A negotiated political settlement, intertwined with a regional approach, is the only desirable endgame.


Beijing wanted to ‘break’ Australia -US Indo-Pacific adviser

China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
Updated 01 December 2021

Beijing wanted to ‘break’ Australia -US Indo-Pacific adviser

China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
  • Campbell underlined the US’ commitment to new security and economic alliances in the Indo Pacific, including the defense technology pact with Australia and Britain, known as AUKUS, and the Quad of India, Japan, US and Australia

SYDNEY: China is conducting “dramatic economic warfare” against Australia and has tried to “break” the US ally, contributing to increased anxiety about Beijing in the region, the White House’s Indo Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, said in a speech to a Sydney think tank on Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden raised the treatment of Australia, which has been subject to trade reprisals by Beijing, in his meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping as an example of behavior that was backfiring because Xi’s advisers were not providing effective feedback, Campbell told the Lowy Institute foreign policy institute.
“China’s preference would have been to break Australia. To drive Australia to its knees,” Campbell said.
Campbell underlined the United States’ commitment to new security and economic alliances in the Indo Pacific, including the defense technology pact with Australia and Britain, known as AUKUS, and the Quad of India, Japan, US and Australia.
These groups would also focus on technology, education, climate and pandemic cooperation, to show the US was bringing value to Asia, he said.
“The United States is not leaving the Indo-Pacific, and we’re not in decline,” he said, adding there appeared to be a belief among “ideological advisers around President Xi that somehow the United States is in this hurtling decline.”
Beijing’s lack of communication over its build up of nuclear deterrent capabilities, hypersonic and anti-satellite systems was of concern to the US, he said, calling them “practices, that, if they continue, run risks of triggering an unforeseen crisis, or a misunderstanding.”
The US was seeking dialogue on the issue, he said, and had told Beijing it wanted competition that was conducted peacefully.


More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
  • The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade

GENEVA: Some 2.9 billion people — 37 percent of the world’s population — have still never used the Internet, the United Nations said Tuesday, despite the Covid-19 pandemic driving people online.
The UN’s International Telecommunication Union estimated that 96 percent of those 2.9 billion live in developing countries.
The agency said the estimated number of people who have gone online rose from 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.9 billion this year, partially due to a “Covid connectivity boost.”
But even among those Internet users, many hundreds of millions might only go online infrequently, using shared devices or facing connection speeds that hamper their Internet use.
“ITU will work to make sure the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion. We are determined to ensure no one will be left behind,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao.
The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade.
The ITU cited measures such as lockdowns, school closures and the need to access services like remote banking.
But the growth has been uneven. Internet access is often unaffordable in poorer nations — almost three-quarters of people have never been online in the 46 least-developed countries.
Younger people, men and urbanites are more likely to use the Internet than older adults, women and those in rural areas, with the gender gap more pronounced in developing nations.
Poverty, illiteracy, limited electricity access and a lack of digital skills continue to challenge the “digitally excluded,” the ITU added.


US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
Updated 01 December 2021

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
  • Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is expected to take steps in the coming days to toughen testing requirements for international travelers to the US, including both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, amid the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The precise testing protocols were still being finalized ahead of a speech by President Joe Biden planned for Thursday on the nation's plans to control the COVID-19 pandemic during the winter season, according to a senior administration official who said some details could still change. Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight. Currently those who are fully vaccinated may present a test taken within three days of boarding.
“CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's plans before the announcement, said options under consideration also include post-arrival testing requirements or or even self-quarantines.
The expected move comes just weeks after the US largely reopened its borders to fully vaccinated foreign travelers on Nov. 8.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, which has been identified in more than 20 countries but not yet in the US, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.
As he sought to quell public concern about the new variant, Biden said that in his Thursday remarks, “I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter -- not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
Asked by reporters if he would consult with allies about any changes in travel rules, given that former President Donald Trump had caught world leaders by surprise, Biden said: “Unlike Trump I don’t shock our allies.”


WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
Updated 01 December 2021

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
  • Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28

GENEVA: Countries should apply "an evidence-informed and risk-based approach" with any travel measures related to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, including possible screening or quarantine of international passengers, but blanket bans do not prevent its spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
The WHO, in its latest guidance to authorities and travellers, said that people over 60 years of age and those with underlying health conditions should be advised to postpone travel as they are at higher risk of disease and death.
This was in line with its advice regarding over 60s since December 2020, regardless of a traveller's vaccination status, and did not represent any change in guidance, a WHO spokesperson said.
First reported in southern Africa a week ago, the variant has brought global alarm https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/hong-kong-expands-travel-curbs-omicron-fears-australia-reports-5-cases-2021-11-30, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.
National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered approach to mitigate risk so as to delay or reduce importation or exportation of the Omicron variant, the WHO said on Tuesday.
"Measures may include screening of passengers prior to travel and/or upon arrival, and use of SARS-COV-2 testing or quarantine of international travellers after thorough risk assessment," it said.
All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers' rights, it said.
"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," it said.
Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28, it added.


Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America
  • Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Brazil and Japan joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Together with the cases in Japan and Brazil, the finding illustrates the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”
Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.
Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland.
France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”
In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.
“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.
Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.
Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”
Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.
“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”
While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.
The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.
Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.
NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.
Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.
Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.
Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.
England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.
After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.